Today marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian rebellion, a popular uprising that started as a protest movement and degenerated into a civil war that has already claimed more than 146,000 lives. As the White House has come to enumerate the various reasons why it has balked at arming the rebels—they’re fragmented, they’re farmers, they’re al Qaeda—it’s worth remembering that even before the opposition picked up weapons to defend itself against a regime shooting at unarmed protestors, it took Obama nearly half a year before he called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
The administration’s Syria policy has been incoherent from the outset. Instead of pursuing actions calibrated to advance American interests while preventing a humanitarian disaster affecting not just Syrians but U.S. allies on Syria’s borders, the White House has engaged in a three-year long messaging campaign meant to protect the president’s flank. The question that three years worth of evasion and disinformation from the White House raises is simply this: why the lies?
If, as Obama says, the American people are war weary and want no further involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East, why not just leave it at that? After all, with the majority of the American public against any military action in Syria—a public that, from his perspective, has elected him president twice to extricate the United States from regional bloodshed and not further implicate us—why not just say that he won’t budge? Neither the torture of innocents can move him, nor the use of rape as an instrument of terror. The murder of children, killed by Assad’s barrel bombs in their sleep, cannot force his hand. Nor can the regime’s deployment of its chemical weapons arsenal force him to take action, as he showed in striking a deal with Vladimir Putin to get rid of Assad’s unconventional weapons. Nay, not pestilence, nor even the four horsemen of the apocalypse can move Obama. But if the president believes that the American public is in broad agreement to do nothing, why not just say plainly that he, in line with their way of thinking, is not going to do anything?
The history of the Syrian civil war is also a chronicle of White House mendacity. Taken as a whole, the breadth and audacity of the administration’s three-year-long misinformation campaign—waged against a U.S. public ostensibly friendly to its policy of non-intervention—is astonishing.
At first, the White House let on that things in Syria just weren’t that bad. As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reasoned, unlike Libya’s Qaddafi, Assad wasn’t using planes to shoot his opposition. Clinton’s talking point on the use of fixed-wing aircraft was quietly dropped after Assad began to strafe and bomb civilian areas.
Then administration officials leaked to the press that it was the Israelis who stopped them. Jerusalem, said Obama aides, had warned the White House against toppling the devil they knew. Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote to the Wall Street Journal on two occasions to correct the record—“I emphatically denied this the first time and categorically deny it again,” wrote Oren. “The violence [Assad] has unleashed on his own people demonstrating for freedoms confirms Israel’s fears that the devil we know in Syria is worse than the devil we don’t.” By May 2011 Israel’s top officials—the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and president—had stated publicly that they were eager to see Assad gone, three months before Obama did.
When the opposition picked up weapons in self-defense, the administration said it didn’t know who the rebels were and was reluctant to give them arms that might wind up being used against allies like Israel. And the White House didn’t need to arm the rebels anyway, officials argued, because Assad’s downfall was a matter of when, not if. He’s a dead man walking, said one of the administration’s Syria hands.
As the death toll mounted, some lawmakers, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and former Senator Joe Lieberman, called for international airpower, led by the United States, to create a no-fly zone, or a buffer zone, offering civilians some refuge from the regime’s depredations. Pentagon officials explained this wasn’t as easy as it sounded—the Syrians had serious Russian-made air defense systems that, to hear then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey tell it, were virtually impregnable. McCain bristled. “We spend almost $1 trillion a year on the military,” he told CNN. “And we can’t take out air defenses of Syria? That is a horrific waste of the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Yet another White House talking point is that Assad is an albatross for Iran. Syria, so went the common wisdom, is the Islamic Republic’s Vietnam. “I'm always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria,” Obama told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg recently. “I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, ‘They’re winning in Syria.’ And you say, ‘This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble.’ It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody.”
And yet, contrary to the White House’s understanding, Tehran believes that there is indeed a military solution—win. Instead of building up a proxy force to take on Iranian allies, the White House chided the opposition’s political leadership. And arming the military leadership, said Obama, was a fool’s errand. After all, what chance did a rag-tag bunch of professionals and semi-skilled laborers have against the mighty Syrian army? “When you have a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states who have huge stakes in this,” said Obama, “and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict -- the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
The White House seems incapable of deciding whether the rebels are an outgrowth of the civilian opposition movement or al Qaeda. The notion that anti-Assad fighters were dominated by jihadists became the most successful component of the administration’s messaging campaign. Why, went the common refrain, should the United States be al Qaeda’s air force? Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a hearing on Capitol Hill that there were plenty of non-al Qaeda units in the Free Syrian Army worthy of American support. But facts weren’t going to change Obama’s mind, nor were Cabinet officials and Obama aides, virtually all of whom, the New York Times reported in October, argued on behalf of arming the rebels. But not even the use of chemical weapons would force Obama’s hand.
In June the White House revealed that American intelligence had a level of high confidence in its assessment that Assad had crossed the president’s red line and used chemical weapons in an April attack. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and an Obama confidante, was tasked with rolling out what seemed to be a new policy—the White House, so went the rumors, was now going to arm the rebels. In a June 13 phone call with reporters, Rhodes proved evasive. Journalists repeatedly pressed to find out what kind of aid the administration had in mind, if it was just more nonlethal military assistance, like vehicles and night-vision goggles, that the White House had previously promised and failed to deliver, or if Obama was really going to send weapons. “We’re just not going to be able to lay out an inventory of what exactly falls under the scope of that assistance,” said Rhodes.
Obama himself provided no more insight when in an appearance on the Charlie Rose show, the commander in chief told his host, “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show.” The only confirmation the administration was sending arms came from press reports sourced to anonymous officials who because they went unnamed had no reason to fear that their credibility was on the line if their information proved inaccurate or false. Subsequent press reports and interviews with rebel commanders over the next few months showed that White House was not sending arms. In other words, there had been no change in policy—the White House was just misdirecting the public.
But why mislead a public that, from Obama’s point of view, wants nothing to do with Syria in the first place? Many observers believed that when Obama sought a congressional authorization for the use of military force in September to enforce his red line, he was risking an embarrassing “no” vote. The reality is that he was intending to use Congress as he’d been using Moscow at the U.N. Security Council for the previous two years—as a veto by proxy to shoot down any actions he neither wants to undertake nor reject himself. Had Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov not intervened with the initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama would have been content to have Congress take the decision out of his hands.
Of course I wanted to hit regime targets, he’d now be confiding to his customary sounding boards and press surrogates. I wanted to punish Assad not just for violating my red line—and of course as I explained in September it’s not my red line, but the world’s red line—but also because of his depredations against his own people. I wanted to do something, but the representatives of the American people said no. For better or worse, it’s they who now own the decision to let Assad escape unpunished.
The president has waged a three-year-long strategic messaging campaign full of half-truths and lies because even if he’s convinced that he’s right and he has the American people on his side, he’s still worried. He understands the scope of the humanitarian catastrophe and fears the strategic disaster that may befall American allies and the United States itself. Obama’s messaging campaign, the White House’s disinformation and evasions, is how the president has tried for the past three years to put some distance between himself and the Syrian conflict. He’s right to fear that it will forever be a black mark on his legacy.